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Reading the text of Creation

It was the strong witness to me of the truth of Article 2 of the Belgic Confession by my pastors, teachers, and professors that enabled and encouraged me to become a scientist:

Then, as now, I truly believe that study of the Book of God's Works is a worthy Christian calling—study that must be pursued coherently with the study of the Book of God's Word. Moreover, I believe that reading the Book of Creation is everyone's privilege and responsibility much as is true for reading the Book of God's Word.

This Confession joined with our regular singing of the psalms with their deep and profound insights into God’s creation and our singing the Doxology at the conclusion of worship that affirmed every Sunday “all creatures here below” bring praise to the God “from whom all blessings flow.” This we confessed. My pastors, teachers, and professors amplified this confession throughout my childhood and youth.

Tree Huggers

Decades later I first heard of people hugging trees. Newspapers reported in April 1973 that villagers in India were confronting destruction of the forests on which they depended for food and fuel. These were the forests they also knew were necessary for stabilizing the soil and preserving their water supplies. Their nonviolent approach to saving Creation impressed me.

As their work spread across their province and then across much of India, it came to be called the Chipko Movement. The name comes from the word chipko, which means to embrace or hug.

By 1980 these chipko—these “tree-huggers”—induced Prime Minister Indira Gandhi to declare a 15-year ban on felling trees of the Himalayan forests. Now, forgetting their passion and their immense work and risk to their lives, we use their name to demean others who care for Creation.

While I had no experience in my youth with people who hugged trees, I did know Christian pastors, teachers, and professors who believed, taught, and lived out in their lives and work the vital importance of "two-books theology" and its application to right living in Creation. None of us thought of hugging trees, but I dare say my whole Christian community could well have hugged the trees in our own yards and neighborhoods if a stranger began to cut them down.

Today, as a practicing environmental scientist, my principal form of witness to the Christian faith comes from Article 2 of the Belgic Confession—to other evangelicals, to other Christians, and to the wider world. What does this confession of faith say? Under the heading “The Means by Which We Know God” on page 818 of the gray Psalter Hymnal, we read:

We know him by two means:

First, by the creation, preservation, and government of the universe,
since that universe is before our eyes like a beautiful book

  in which all creatures,

  great and small,

  are as letters

  to make us ponder

  the invisible things of God:

  his eternal power

  and his divinity,

  as the apostle Paul says in

Romans 1:20.

All these things are enough to convict [us] and to leave [us] without excuse.

Second, he makes himself known to us more openly
by his holy and divine Word,
as much as we need in this life,

  for his glory

  and for the salvation of his own.

Reading Creation

Western Christianity, and indeed Western society, until very recently was informed and shaped by such a “two-books worldview.” Believers in the Book of God’s Word also passionately acknowledged God as author of the Book of Creation. They respected the text of both books. Most also saw both texts worthy of protection, preservation, and restoration. To a large degree that view is what motivated John Muir and President Theodore Roosevelt to promote and establish the U.S. National Parks.

A similar conviction motivates Bible translators’ work to preserve biblical texts and to convey those texts as accurately and carefully as possible, even going to the extent of restoring corrupted text to its earlier renditions. They apply knowledge and great care to assure the texts will be read properly. Biblical texts must be read “nonconsumptively” and “nondestructively.” Tearing out pages or degrading the text is unthinkable.

In reading the universe that “is before our eyes like a beautiful book in which all creatures, great and small, are as letters [of text] to make us ponder the invisible things of God,” we also need to apply great care and knowledge. We need to give great care to the text of the Book of Creation, for to do otherwise would be to diminish the testimony of Creation to God’s eternal power and divinity (Rom. 1:20).

In reading the text of Creation it’s important to have available to us the very best unaltered texts in order to provide the best material for reading and interpretation. The text of Creation of course is dynamic—it comes out (as John Burroughs once put it) in a new edition every morning. The dynamic nature of the text means, for example, that we not only open the best available pages in the present, but also pages from earlier editions wherever these editions might still be readable.

God’s earth does have earlier and even ancient texts, leading for example to John Muir’s describing his own work to understand and preserve Yosemite National Park as “reading the glacial Scriptures.”

Among the readers and translators of Creation’s text are those who have the commitment and deep sense of obligation to convey that text as accurately and carefully as possible, even going to the extent of restoring corrupted text to its earlier renditions.

Not only must we apply great care and knowledge to the reading of Creation’s texts, but we also need to do everything possible to assure that the book is read and interpreted as closely as possible in accordance with the many earlier editions of the original texts that may be available. Translations and transcriptions of Creation’s texts require extremely careful work, and the texts must not be degraded in the process.

As with the Book of God’s Word, the Book of Creation needs to be read nonconsumptively so that it will remain readable to future translators and others. Tearing out pages or degrading Creation’s text is unthinkable.

Yet even as we seek to read and preserve Creation’s texts, we need to transform some parts of Creation for our own use and sustenance. How to live in Creation without destroying its testimony is a principal challenge to maintaining the integrity and capacity of Creation’s book to teach and inform human understanding. This is the responsibility of all of us, not just scientists.

As both texts must be preserved, they must also be read together, coherently, and interactively. Having the same author—our Creator God, who is just, righteous, coherent, and consistent—both texts need to be read coherently with the faith and conviction that they are necessarily consistent.

This is the rich base from which right living, worship, and stewardship comes in our biblical tradition. This rich base is one of the great gifts of our Judeo-Christian and Reformed heritage to all cultures. It’s offered freely to everyone to help people everywhere live rightly on earth.

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